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Sir William WALTON (1902-1983)
The Bear – An Extravaganza in One Act (1965-67)
Popova – Della Jones (mezzo-soprano)
Smirnov – Alan Opie (baritone)
Luka – John Shirley-Quirk (bass)
Northern Sinfonia/Richard Hickox
rec. St Nicholas Hospital, Gosforth, Newcastle upon Tyne, 1993
CHANDOS CHAN10947X [53:26]

This 1993 recording of Walton’s one-act opera, The Bear, was re-released last year as part of a series, The Hickox Legacy, celebrating the long and fruitful collaboration between the late Richard Hickox and Chandos, a partnership which resulted in more than 280 recordings.
The re-release also marked the fiftieth anniversary of the opera’s first performance, at the 1967 Aldeburgh Festival as part of a double-bill with Lennox Berkeley’s Castaway (which replaced the originally programmed Punch and Judy by Harrison Birtwistle; the latter was premièred at the following year’s Festival). It is reported to have been Peter Pears who proposed Chekov’s one-act ‘vaudeville’ (the playwright’s own term), The Bear, as suitable libretto material, presumably, and rightly, judging that Chekhov’s sardonic skewering of a widow’s narcissistic, life-denying idealism – and Russia’s enslavement to both the vodka bottle and the bankruptcy courts – would stimulate Walton’s virtuosic musical wit.

It is 1888, and the Russian widow Madame Popova has sworn to mourn her deceased husband for the rest of her days, despite the urgings of her servant Luka that she should begin afresh and her own knowledge of her ‘mean, brutal’ husband’s frequent infidelities. She is visited by the coarse landowner Smirnov, the eponymous ‘bear’, who aggressively demands that she pay her late husband’s debts to avert his imminent bankruptcy. Smirnov declares that a duel must settle the matter: and, though he is attracted by Popova’s spirited acceptance of his challenge, he must kill her – as a matter of principle. But, as they take aim with their pistols, they realise that Cupid’s arrows are more potent weapons: they have, in a remarkable coup de foudre, fallen in love.

Walton worked with writer Paul Dehn to fashion the libretto of the opera which they labelled ‘An Extravaganza in One Act’, a fitting description given the flamboyant chutzpah of Walton’s pastiche-rich score which indulges in tongue-in-cheek parodies of Puccini, Strauss, Tchaikovsky, Offenbach and others. Even Britten does not escape Walton’s sharp pen.

Hickox paces the drama perfectly, allowing space for moments of self-indulgent, solipsistic navel-gazing by both Popova and Smirnov, building skilfully through the increasingly bitter bickering to the moment when Smirnov throws down the gauntlet, and ratcheting the tension as the smitten landowner attempts to show Popova how to pull the pistol trigger, to an accompaniment of jittery piano and percussion interjections. With Smirnov’s declaration of love, the swooning expansiveness of the low strings and dark-toned brass are worthy of the golden age of the movies – and remind us that Walton was himself one of the fathers of the film score. And, Hickox races brightly through the brief coda, evoking the breathless passion of the astounded lovers.

The orchestral sound is precise, bright and clean: we hear every woodwind whoop and flutter, every string sigh, every percussive jangle and jape. And, though the English libretto is printed in the accompanying booklet (along with a liner note by Christopher Palmer in English, German and French), we barely need to glance at the text, so consistently clear is the singers’ diction.

John Shirley-Quirk is a droll, long-suffering Luka, incredulous that anyone should devote themselves to a life of lamentation. He traverses lightly through the declamatory vocal line, with occasional lyricism, breadth and weight judiciously suggesting depth of character – as when he condemns his proud mistress for ‘flaunting her tail like a peacock’.

Della Jones relishes the melodrama of Popova’s grief, indignation and defiance. Her mezzo takes on a rich resonance to convey the widow’s resoluteness – she will remain ‘buried … within these four walls … We are both dead’ – but she is often mocked by a cynical bassoon, and her more hyperbolic glissandi outbursts are heralded by the clash of cymbal or strident blasts of trombone and trumpet. Jones’s plump lower register radiates Popova’s resentment and smugness, and she descends to grainy depths with her avowal, ‘I really must enter a convent … Yes, a convent’. She captures every histrionic gesture, weeping and laughing simultaneously as Popova taunts the photograph of her dead husband with her own goodness and loyalty: ‘aren’t you ashamed of yourself, you silly old fatty?’ And, while Jones’s voice takes on a more shrewish tautness with the unwelcome arrival of Smirnov, she metamorphoses into a minx of the cabaret scene – accompanied by a gruff bassoon and clarinet slithers – when she sings her own praises, as a ‘constant, faithful wife’.

Alan Opie vocally conjures a three-dimensional portrait of the bellicose Smirnov: self-important, self-pitying, pugnacious – the martial drums and trumpet of this former ‘lieutenant of artillery’ repeatedly intervene – and snivelling. Opie displays admirable flexibility, tip-toeing jauntily through the jerky and unpredictable rhythms of Smirnov’s list of the creditors who ever evade him. Moreover, he ensures that we can admire Dehn’s neat rhymes: ‘Chubatov is always drunk, Mazutov is moronic, Nemerov has become a monk, Volnitsky has bubonic.

The drunken landowner’s volatility is writ plain. Opie descends to wallow in self-regard, then rises to brighter realms lit by the fire and ire of injustice; he quavers with petulance, and growls with bristling fury, hardening the tone still further when rudely dismissive of Popova’s feminine self-righteousness.

Jones and Opie are fine, equal combatants. When Smirnov’s vodka-fuelled vulgarity prompts sanctimonious pomposity from Popova, he gives as good as he gets, mocking her by mimicking a mincing French singer, ‘Madame, je vous prie’, a number which recalls the slick musical sarcasm of Façade.

Hickox draws every ounce of drama from Walton’s incisive, deftly drawn musical vignette, painting a wry, amusing portrait of the pettiness, absurdity and feckless of the Russian temperament: an engaging, Chekhovian slice of life.

Claire Seymour



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